by Dr. Paul Lieber
For most collectors in the U.S., vintage hockey cards are uncommon sights at local trading card stores, even more so ones in mid to high grade or eligible as such condition. This is arguably for common sense reasons: simply put, the National Hockey League (and the World Hockey Association alongside it) during these collecting periods were vastly popular among a loyal but unfortunately small fan base. Logically, trading card collectability went hand in hand.
For the vintage hockey that does exist, its loyal fan base tends to keep them for posterity: earliest vintage hockey tobacco and/or Parkhurst are the rarest of sites even on eBay. After several years of sharking, I’ve uncovered their uncommon appearance typically en masse, perhaps stemming from a complete collection changing hands. Unfortunately – and in most instances – the ones that do appear are in lower grades. As expected, nearly all originate from Canada or border areas within the northeast or northwestern United States.
Which brings me to O-Pee-Chee. As most collectors are aware, the Canadian confectionary company has a rich legacy in sports cards, thanks to longstanding affiliation with either Topps or Upper Deck. This relationship enabled distribution of Topps baseball across Canada for several decades, cards with different (less fine) edge cutting also government mandated bilingual (French) content.
Modern day O-Pee-Chee hockey is, of course, a staple of the hockey card collecting industry across both the United States and Canada. Their vintage brethren, however, almost holy grails in higher grades. Gretzky O-Pee-Chee rookies are perhaps the most widely seen of the latter batch, no doubt due to their impressive book value. The O-Pee-Chee Gretzky rookie plus second and third year cards remain competitive investment opportunities, far surpassing their Topps counterparts in value especially at mid or upper grades.
Similarly, high grade LeMieux and Roy O-Pee-Chee rookies continue to climb, selling significantly above high book value also generating a great deal of attention. Akin to Gretzky, their Topps rookie counterparts remain fairly value stagnant – albeit strong - in comparison.
Exploring this phenomenon further on eBay uncovers an interesting collecting reality: nearly all first tier, mid-high grade, vintage O-Pee-Chee hockey rookies are both rare finds and almost always sell above high book value. In most instances, these cards tend to generate enormous amounts of bidding activity and ‘watch’ interest among collectors.
The most beloved are as expected: Original Six super- or semi-stars, with a sprinkling of decade greats from other squads (Flyers, Islanders, Sabres) mixed in. Even legendary coaches are part of this equation, with Scotty Bowman O-Pee-Chee first years holding strong book value.
Much like vintage basketball, vintage O-Pee-Chee hockey shares a commonality in there being a surprisingly small set of bona-fide, sustained greats to choose from. Literally a couple dozen players per decade defined the sport, thus comprising a fairly small target window for true investment opportunities via rookie cards. Even at high or above book value, many of these individuals – Bob Clarke, Tony Esposito, Mike Bossy, etc. – can be had at still reasonable prices and decent grades. Second tier stars – Paul Coffey, Denis Savard, Jari Kurri, etc. – are sneaky gems waiting to be snatched.
Thus, and for the vintage collector, O-Pee-Chee hockey remains perhaps the best kept secret in card collecting…even more so at mid-high grades (or eligible). Low print runs and availability only strengthens collectability, also Topps serving as a simultaneous benchmark to price against. The small number of true stars provides additional protection.
Be warned: the concurrent unfortunate reality of these cards, however, is that auction versus book value tends to define going rates as a result. The vintage O-Pee-Chee hockey auction market can – and will – fluctuate considerably for a card based on comparisons available at that exact instance. I’ve witnessed substantial differences in going rates for the same player over a 60-day window. Still – and for the collector looking for something different and under-explored – there’s a lot of history and collectability within the treasure trove of O-Pee-Chee vintage hockey. You can see thousands of them by clicking here to eBay (to learn what your cards may be worth, search "sold" listings).